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Reality Check

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July 13, 2009

Have you become sick of hearing about the “green shoots”?   Back on March 15, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke appeared on 60 Minutes and made the self-serving, self-congratulatory claim that “green shoots” could be found in the economy.  I guess we’re supposed to thank him for all the extra money printing he had mandated, to facilitate this claimed result.  While we normal people continued to cope with ongoing job losses, an almost nonexistent job market, unavailable mortgages, a constipated real estate market and fear about the future   . . .   Chairman Bernanke was trying to sell us on some good news.  Since that time, the expression “green shoots” has been the mantra for those pundits who, for whatever reason, want the naive public to believe in the emperor’s new clothes.  The usual motive for chatting up the “green shoots” is to encourage a widespread popular return to investing in the stock market and by so doing, make life more rewarding for those at brokerage firms.

This week brings us a “reality check” that will come in the form of earnings reports from the second quarter of 2009, required for disclosure by publicly-held corporations, traded on our nation’s stock exchanges.  Recent news reports have focused on the fact that despite the “bear market rally” that began in May, last week’s drop in stock prices revealed widespread investor concern that the truth will not support all the hype they have been reading since the spring.  Here’s what E.S. Browning had to say in the July 8 edition of The Wall Street Journal:

Expectations for the current earnings season are very low, and investors are worried companies will give weak outlooks for the second half of the year.

“We kind of think the market got ahead of itself.  It ran too fast, too hard, and we are soon going to be staring at second-quarter earnings reports that are not going to be pretty,” said Janna Sampson, who helps oversee $1.3 billion as co-chief investment officer of OakBrook Investments in Lisle, Ill.

After the market bottomed March 9, investors increasingly embraced risky assets, bidding up stocks, especially those of smaller companies with little or no profit.

Those unfortunate investors were hit by two “sucker punches”.  The first was the often-repeated claim that “stocks are now a bargain  . . .  we’ve hit the bottom so now is the time to BUY!”  The second sucker punch involved the use of high-speed trading programs (such as the one recently stolen from Goldman Sachs) to run up the prices on stocks and exploit “retail investors” such as you and me.  An astute explanation of this process was recently published by Sal Arnuk and Joseph Saluzzi of Themis Trading.  You can read that report here.  What’s even more interesting about the computer program used by (and stolen from) Goldman Sachs, is the statement made by Assistant U.S.Attorney Joseph Facciponti, as quoted in the July 6 article by David Glovin and Christine Harper for Bloomberg News:

“The bank has raised the possibility that there is a danger that somebody who knew how to use this program could use it to manipulate markets in unfair ways,” Facciponti said, according to a recording of the hearing made public today.

So Goldman Sachs has a computer program that allows the user to “manipulate the markets in unfair ways”?  That’s quite a revelation!  If that weren’t bad enough  . . .  according to a recent report by Tyler Durden at Zero Hedge, Goldman Sachs is not the only kid on the block with a high-frequency trading program.

Alexendra Twin of CNN (in addition to providing us with a schedule of earnings reports and other important economic data to be released over this week and next) pointed out another important reason for last spring’s stock market rally, which is not likely to be a factor this month:

Last quarter, analysts and corporations alike ratcheted down forecasts, setting up a period in which a greater percentage of companies than usual beat forecasts.  But this quarter could be different.  Fewer companies have been cutting forecasts and analysts haven’t budged as much either, giving corporations less of an opportunity to defy expectations.

“The question is whether we’ll see a similar surprise factor this time,” said John Butters, senior research analyst at Thomson Reuters. “If companies haven’t cut and analysts haven’t cut, can results beat forecasts?”

My take on this process is a bit more cynical:  the system is being “gamed” by companies’ providing artificially low estimates for future earnings, in order to win at what commentator Bill Fleckenstein calls “beat the number”.

Once we have read about all these reports  —  will we finally stop hearing about “green shoots”?  I have my money on bad economic news, as I continue to maintain my position in the SRS exchange-traded fund.  Nevertheless, I’m keeping one hand on the ripcord, ready to bail out at any minute.

The Scary Stuff

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July 6, 2009

During the past week, a good number of Americans had been soothing themselves in Michael Jackson nostalgia  . . .  others watched tennis, many were intrigued by the military coup in Honduras and everyone tried to figure out what was going on in Sarah Palin’s mind.  Meanwhile  . . .  there was some really scary stuff in the news.  With Fourth of July behind us, it’s time to start looking forward to Halloween.  We need not look very far to get a good scare.  Those of us who still have jobs are afraid they may lose them.  Those who have lost their jobs wonder how long they can stay afloat before chaos finally takes over.  Many wise people, despite their comfortable positions in life (for now) have been discussing these types of problems lately.  Their opinions and outlooks are getting more and more ink (or electrons) as the economic crisis continues to unfold.

As we look at the current situation,  let’s check in with the guy who has the biggest mouth.  During an interview on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos, Vice-President Joe Biden admitted that “we and everyone else misread the economy”:

Biden acknowledged administration officials were too optimistic earlier this year when they predicted the unemployment rate would peak at 8 percent as part of their effort to sell the stimulus package.  The national unemployment rate has ballooned to 9.5 percent in June  —  the worst in 26 years.

This was basically a concession, validating the long-standing criticism by economists such as Nouriel Roubini (a/k/a “Dr.Doom”) who refuted the administration’s view of this crisis.  Many economists (including Roubini) have emphasized the administration’s unrealistic perception of the unemployment problem as a primary flaw in the “bank stress tests” as established by Treasury Secretary “Turbo” Tim Geithner.  Now we’re finding out how ugly this picture really is.  Here are some points raised by Dr. Roubini on July 2:

The June employment report suggests that the alleged “green shoots” are mostly yellow weeds that may eventually turn into brown manure.  The employment report shows that conditions in the labor market continue to be extremely weak, with job losses in June of over 460,000.

*   *   *

The other important aspect of the labor market is that if the unemployment rate is going to peak around 11 percent next year, the expected losses for banks on their loans and securities are going to be much higher than the ones estimated in the recent stress tests.  You plug an unemployment rate of 11 percent in any model of loan losses and recovery rates and you get very ugly losses for subprime, near-prime, prime, home equity loan lines, credit cards, auto loans, student loans, leverage loans, and commercial loans — much bigger numbers than what the stress tests projected.

In the stress tests, the average unemployment rate next year was assumed to be 10.3 percent in the most adverse scenario. We’ll be already at 10.3 percent by the fall or the winter of this year, and certainly well above that and close to 11% at some point next year.

*   *   *

The job market report is essentially the tip of the iceberg.  It’s a significant signal of the weaknesses in the economy.  It affects consumer confidence.  It affects labor income.  It affects consumption.  It affects the willingness of firms to start increasing production.  It has significant consequences of the housing market.  And it has significant consequences, of course, on the banking system.

*   *   *

But eventually, large budget deficits and their monetization are going to lead — towards the end of next year and in 2011 — to an increase in expected inflation that may lead to a further increase in ten-year treasuries and other long-term government bond yields, and thus mortgage and private-market rates.  Together with higher oil prices driven up in part by this wall of liquidity rather than fundamentals alone, this could be a double whammy that could push the economy into a double-dip or W-shaped recession by late 2010 or 2011.   So the outlook for the US and global economy remains extremely weak ahead.  The recent rally in global equities, commodities and credit may soon fizzle out as an onslaught of worse-than-expected macro, earnings and financial news take a toll on this rally,which has gotten way ahead of improvement in actual macro data.

All right  .  .  .   So you may be thinking that this is exactly the type of pessimism we can expect from someone with the nickname “Dr. Doom”.  However, if you take a look at the July 2 article by Tom Lindmark on the Seeking Alpha website, you will find some important concurrence.  Mr. Lindmark discussed his own observation about the unemployment crisis:

All of these people do have to find jobs again sometime and I suspect, as do many others, that the numbers understate the extent of the problem.  There are a lot of people working for ten or twelve bucks an hour that used to make multiples of those numbers.  That’s what you do to survive.   So as we all probably know intuitively, the truth is worse than the picture the numbers paint.

Lindmark included the reactions of several economists to the latest unemployment data, as quoted from The Wall Street Journal Real Time Economics Blog.  It’s more of the same — not happy stuff.  Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s self-serving, self-congratulatory claim that “green shoots” could be found in the economy was made during a discussion on 60 Minutes back on March 15.  That’s what you call:   “premature shoots”.

Just in case you aren’t getting scared yet, take a look at what Ambrose Evans-Pritchard had to say in the Telegraph UK.  He draws our reluctant attention to the possibility that there might just be a violent reaction from the masses, once the ugliness of our situation finally sets in:

One dog has yet to bark in this long winding crisis.  Beyond riots in Athens and a Baltic bust-up, we have not seen evidence of bitter political protest as the slump eats away at the legitimacy of governing elites in North America, Europe, and Japan.  It may just be a matter of time.

One of my odd experiences covering the US in the early 1990s was visiting militia groups that sprang up in Texas, Idaho, and Ohio in the aftermath of recession.  These were mostly blue-collar workers, —  early victims of global “labour arbitrage” — angry enough with Washington to spend weekends in fatigues with M16 rifles.  Most backed protest candidate Ross Perot, who won 19pc of the presidential vote in 1992 with talk of shutting trade with Mexico.

The inchoate protest dissipated once recovery fed through to jobs, although one fringe group blew up the Oklahoma City Federal Building in 1995.  Unfortunately, there will be no such jobs this time.  Capacity use has fallen to record-low levels (68pc in the US,71 in the eurozone).  A deep purge of labour is yet to come.

*   *   *

The Centre for Labour Market Studies (CLMS) in Boston says US unemployment is now 18.2pc, counting the old-fashioned way.  The reason why this does not “feel” like the 1930s is that we tend to compress the chronology of the Depression.  It takes time for people to deplete their savings and sink into destitution.  Perhaps our greater cushion of wealth today will prevent another Grapes of Wrath, but 20m US homeowners are already in negative equity (zillow.com data).  Evictions are running at a terrifying pace.

Some 342,000 homes were foreclosed in April, pushing a small army of children into a network of charity shelters.  This compares to 273,000 homes lost in the entire year of 1932. Sheriffs in Michigan and Illinois are quietly refusing to toss families on to the streets, like the non-compliance of Catholic police in the Slump.

*   *   *

The message has not reached Wall Street or the City.  If bankers know what is good for them, they will take a teacher’s salary for a few years until the storm passes.  If they proceed with the bonuses now on the table, even as taxpayers pay for the errors of their caste, they must expect a ferocious backlash.

Do you think those bankers are saying “EEEEEK!” yet?  They probably aren’t.  Many other similarly-situated individuals are likely turning the page to have a look at the action in “emerging markets”.  Nevertheless, Mr. Evans-Pritchard, in another piece, exposed the hopelessness of those expectations:

Russia is sinking into a swamp of bad loans.

The scale of credit rot in the Russian banking system exposed by Fitch Ratings this week is truly staggering.  The report is yet another cold douche to those betting that the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) can pull us out of our mess.

So there you have it.  You wanted to see Thriller again?  Now you have it in real life.  This time, neither Boris Karloff nor Michael Jackson will be around to keep it “lite”.  This is our reality in July of 2009.  Hang on.